Recycling on the Key Peninsula

Why do programs differ from place to place? Where does our recycled material go? Does recycling make environmental sense?


In April Pierce County households received Earth Matters, the recycling newsletter mailed twice a year, announcing a change in what could be recycled. This is the second time since 2007, when the program began collecting recyclables in a single bin, that the program has made a change. Shredded paper, refrigerated cartons and plant pots are no longer accepted.

Pierce County contracts with Waste Connections to collect Key Peninsula recycle bins. Pioneer Recycling then processes the materials. Glass, which can be taken to the Key Center transfer station, is shipped to Strategic Recycling in Seattle for processing. Plastic bags can be taken to collection centers, and one is located at the Key Center Food Market. According to a Food Market employee the bags are collected twice a week by its warehouse, but the KP News could not confirm where they are taken from there.

“We are moving from wishful recycling to when in doubt throw it out,” said Steve Frank, president of Pioneer Recycling. “The market is demanding higher quality with no contamination. It is expensive to sort, bale and ship paper, plastic and metal. But it is even more expensive to sort and then send it to the garbage.”

“Recyclers are handling a commodity and they are subject to commodity pricing,” said Joe Casalini, who worked in the recycling business for 35 years and recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association. “Those prices can fluctuate and right now we are in an oversupply state. Recycling is also geographical. The closer you are to a market — with access to a port or railway — the more robust your recycling program can be.”

Ryan Dicks, Pierce County Sustainable Resources administrator, agreed with that assessment. “Recycling is local,” he said, and added that the market was strong until four or five years ago and has become progressively tighter in the past three years. Most recycled material was sent to China, which recently closed the market. Materials are now sent to sites in North America.

Despite the limitations, recycling is still more cost effective than sending material to a landfill and it preserves natural resources, according to Dicks. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Frank emphasized that it is critical to know what materials can be recycled locally. Some sorting is initially done manually, getting rid of things that don’t belong. Machines and technology largely take it from there, using a combination of mechanical and optical techniques. Pioneer no longer accepts shredded paper because it falls through the sorter and goes straight to land fill. The county hosts shredding events where it is accepted. Refrigerated cartons are coated or lined with materials in addition to paper and the moisture in the containers can lead to mildew, a contaminant that makes paper worthless. Only number 1, 2 and 5 plastics are recyclable; anything else ends up in landfill.

All three men said that the most important action individuals can take to protect the environment is to avoid the need to recycle in the first place — emphasizing the reduce in the three-R mantra of reduce, recycle and reuse.

Frank’s highest priority is to get rid of single-use plastic bags. “There is no market for them,” he said. “Use paper or reusable bags instead.”

“Underneath, it’s all about natural resources,” Casalini said. “How can we reuse those resources and maintain our environment? We keep producing products that are in a one-way direction that we can’t reuse.” He added that as long as it is cheap to make products from natural resources it is difficult to find a market that manufactures things from recycled materials.

The costs of recycling and storing trash are continuing to rise. Dicks said that the concept of product stewardship is developing, where producers may need to bear responsibility for some of the cost of recycling.

Contaminated material, including such things as food waste or nonrecyclable refuse is sent to a landfill. The Pierce County landfill, located in Graham, is tightly regulated to assure there is no contamination of the local environment. Both Tacoma Pierce County Health Department and Washington State Department of Ecology monitor the site regularly.